The Ingratitude of Real Madrid

Andy Newman


A  scandal has been running in the sports pages for the last few months about the shoddy treatment of Ferenc Puskás by his old club Real Madrid. Despite Real holding top spot in the Deloitte and Touche Football Money League, with earnings of over £190 million last season, a fund raising match on August 14th for their greatest ever player originally saw just £7000 passed on for his medical care, while the club trousered £892000 in expenses.

The impact that Puskás made on the modern game is second to none. In the days of its ascendancy during the 1950s the Hungarian Golden team (Aranycsapat) reinvented football, with an emphasis on passing and tactics. They developed the innovation of playing two forwards up front (Kocsis and Puskás) but with a centre forward (Hidegkuti) playing deeper to link up with the midfield.

Their demolition of England in 1953 was an inspiration to Malcolm Allison and Ron Greenwood, in creating the West Ham Academy.  Although denied by the fans of other clubs, the tradition of discussing and debating how to play better at Cassettari's cafe opposite Upton Park contributed to the genius of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, and had a lasting impact on English football.

 The Hungarian national team were built around the army club of Kispest Honved, and as technical amateurs they held the Olympic gold medal from 1952.  Puskás was the inspiration of the team, with magical ball skills and a ruthless eye for goals: scoring 83 goals in 84 internationals, and is still the only player to have scored 4 goals in a European Cup final.

At that stage England felt international competition rather beneath them and had declined repeated invitations to compete in FIFA's world cup, and had never been defeated by an overseas club at home. So when the chubby, short army major Ferenc Puskás led his team out at Wembley, the England team were in for a surprise. England were not only thrashed 6:3, but out played and out classed in every way. Tom Finney, spoke afterwards: "I came away wondering to myself what we had been doing all these years." A few months later he found out the hard way. Finney was selected for the England team that played the return match in Budapest, and were beaten 7:1.

1954 was the high point of Puskás's career for Hungary, gaining the runners' up medal in the world cup in Switzerland. The result was a shock as they lost to West Germany who they had stuffed 8:3 earlier in the competition. But Puskás had been injured by Werner Liebrich in the earlier match, and missed out on the shameful Battle of Berne, the quarter final where Hungary beat Brazil 4:2. The Brazilians laid into the European club with a ferocity of tackling that would not only be disallowed by modern referees, but would possibly see players prosecuted. After the match the Brazilians stormed into the Hungarian dressing room and assaulted Puskás himself. Mauled and exhausted by the Brazilians the Arancycsapat lost their first game in over 4 years - the final of the world cup!


The revolution of 1956 found Honved in Bilboa, playing a European cup tie and some of the team, including Puskás, defected. He lived a year in Austria but failed to get a playing permit, and could not interest an Italian club beause they regarded him as too old (at 28!) and too fat. He was rescued by his old Honved manager Emil Östreicher, now in charge at Real Madrid, who signed him for £10000 in 1958.

Puskás was a giant at Real, at the time when the club was building its legendary status. Building a glorious partnership with the Argentinian striker, Alfredo Di Stefano, Puskás scored goal after goal and was four times the top scorer in the Spanish Championship. The climax was the 1960 European Cup Final played before 135,000 at Hampden Park. Real beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3. Di Stefano scored a hat-trick. Puskás scored four. Real had won the European Cup five times in a row.  

But we must always remember that in those days players did not make huge fortunes. After retiring as a player Puskás had only moderate success as a manager, briefly even coaching South Melbourne in the former Australian National Soccer League, and rather more prestigously taking Greek Champions Panathinaikos to the European Cup Final in 1971 where they lost 2-0 to Ajax at Wembley.

Now aged 78, Puskás suffers from a form of Alzheimers, and has returned to his native Hungary, where his family have been struggling to pay his medical bills. 

Some contrast with the present fortunes of his club Real Madrid is therefore called for.  

Last season Real made a staggering £80 million in merchandising sales-and raked in a further £16m from their lucrative Japan tour. Iconic Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham is said to want a mega £10 million-a-year deal to re-sign with the club for the next 4 years. Beckham currently earns a mere £5.5 a year, the same as paid to Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo. Analysts estimate that the club earns £50 million a year just from merchandising rights directly associated with David Beckham. Not short of a bob or two Real have just paid £8 million for Ashley Cole, where they will undoubtedly better the £75000 per week he earns at Highbury (£3.8 million per year) 

How can it possibly be that  such a rich  club could allow Puskás to recently sell his personal memorabilia to pay for medical attention (He recently made £100000 for items, including the boots he wore in the Olympic final and his 1954 World Cup runners' up medal)? Bizarrely, but perhaps with an eye to where the money lies in modern football, the auction was held on November 2nd in Chester in England.

The club itself says on its web-site: "Real Madrid has been contributing an important sum of money for a number of years in order to subsidise the costs of the player's medical care ... ... from September 2000, Real Madrid has made a monthly contribution to Puskás via its Foundation and to a bank account in the name of the player and his wife Elizabeth." Yet they still felt it appropriate to draw nearly a million pounds in expenses from the testimonial match organised  for  Puskás's heath care. Shame on them; and shame on their current players for taking money for the trip to Hungary.  

Fortunately, due to the international furore, and the public condemnation by Elizabeth Puskás, and their daughter Aniko, the organiser of the match László Erdġs, (manager of Trendsport Ltd), has  somehow found a further £56000 for the family out of the proceeds of the game (from where?). FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a great admirer of Puskás, has also said that the sport's world governing body will step in to help the ailing player.

This shoddy story of greed and ingratitude shines a revealing spot-light on the distorted values of sport industry. The dollar value of a club like Real Madrid is not just its current performance on the field, but also its brand image, built though triumph and adversity, through skill and passion of its players. Fernec Puskás, perhaps the greatest ever European footballer, helped build the charisma of Real. He deserves better from them now.